Tiv people

Total population
(Approx. 3.2 million)
Regions with significant populations
Nigeria, Cameroon
Predominantly Christian, Tiv Traditional religion

Tiv[1]) is an ethno-linguistic group or nation in West Africa. They number approximately 3,200,000 individuals in Nigeria and Cameroon.[2] In Nigeria, most speakers are found in Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba. They depend on agricultural produce for commerce and life.


The Tiv came into contact with European culture during the colonial period. During November 1907 to spring 1908, an expedition of the Southern Nigeria Regiment led by Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Trenchard's came into contact with the Tiv. Trenchard brought gifts for the tribal chiefs. Subsequently, roads were built and trade links established between Europeans and the Tiv.[3] But before construction of roads began a missionary named Mary Slessor went throughout the region seeing to the people's needs.

The geographical position of the Tiv, according to Laura Bohannan and Paul J. Bohannan (1969: 9) and Rubingh (1969: 58), is between 6° 30' and 8° 10' north latitude and 8° and 10° east longitude. The Tiv shares borders with the Chamba and Jukun of Taraba State in the northeast; Alago in the north , with the Iyala, Gakem and Obudu of Cross River State in the south; and the Idoma and Igede of Benue State to the west. There is also an international boundary between the Tiv and the Republic of Cameroon at a southeastern angle of the ethnic group’s location. They are among the majority ethnic groups in Nigeria, ranking as the fourth most populous ethnic group. Numbering about six million individuals in Benue State alone, according to 2014 estimates, they occupy the Middle Belt States of Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, and Plateau.1 A few Tiv are also found in Cross River and Adamawa States of Nigeria and in the southwestern Province of Cameroon.

There are numerous submissions about the origin of Tiv people. We are, however, in agreement with Torkula (2006: 1) that: “Although different views are held about the Tiv origin, the version that commands popularity and currency is that which traces their origin to the Bantu people who once inhabited the Central African continent, in the Shaba area of the present Democratic Republic of Congo.” The popularity and currency of this version is due to the assorted pieces of evidence supporting it. One such piece of evidence is linguistic. R. C. Abraham (1934: 6–7), for instance, compiled a list of 67 Tiv words and juxtaposed them with the words of Bantu Nyaza showing a striking similarity in both phonetics and semantics. Based on that, Abraham (1934: 5) concluded that the Tiv were “real Bantu” and subsequently that they came from the Congo. Another linguistic piece of evidence has to do with the present writer’s family name of Tsenôngu which is Tiv and which when ended with an “o” (as done by many Tivs without any semantic harm) is the name of a town of 300 000 people in the present Democratic Republic of Congo. Such pieces of linguistic evidence testify to the fact that the Tiv actually migrated from the Congo; from there they passed through several places before settling in the Benue Valley, their present location. The main occupation of the Tiv is subsistence farming. They regard yam farming as their birthright and commit themselves to its work with religious dedication.

As for their social organization, traditional Tiv society was completely egalitarian. There was no central authority. They had no king so every man was ruler of his own house. They lived in compounds administered by the oldest man. Many compounds formed clans and districts that were variously divided and sub-divided. The elders of the various clans (upyaven) and districts (ityar) met and discussed issues at those levels and arrived at democratic decisions that bound their sections. If an issue involved the whole ethnic group, the elders of the various sections and districts met and took a decision. This situation obtained until 1946 when the colonialists established a Tiv central authority by creating the office of a paramount ruler. The paramount ruler (Tor Tiv) lives and administers the people in Gboko, their headquarters town, which was built in 1932. Ascendancy to the Tor Tiv throne is not hereditary.

Leo Frobenius, the German traveller, for example, declared them (the Tiv people) as the “best storytellers in Africa” (Keil 1979: 20). Laura Bohannan too has, under the pseudonym of Elenore Smith Bowen, often been referred deservedly to for her admiring description of a Tiv tale-telling session in her autobiographical novel, Return to Laughter. Commenting on Bohannan’s book, Frances Harding (1992: 156) has said that: “So important does Bohannan consider storytelling in Tiv life that not only is its performance the occasion of the laughter which gives the novel its title, but it is recognized as a healing, binding force in the community.” Indeed Keil (1979: 57) was right in his submission that “qualitatively, all visitors to Tivland agree that storytelling can be a very dramatic event.” But it is not just in storytelling that members of the ethnic group have made their artistic mark; they are known for their dance craft, poetic creativity and general aesthetic profundity. To provide just one example relating to their dance repertoire, in 1973 the ethnic group alone accounted for fifty-four of the one hundred and eighty-eight dances performed at the “Festival of 200 Dances of the Benue-Plateau State” held in Jos, Nigeria. The then Benue-Plateau State comprised more than thirty ethnic nationalities. This is statistical testimony to the dancing skills in Tivland. Indeed, the ethnic group is generally artistically active. And one of the avenues where this artistic activity exhibits itself is in nuptial poetry. But before we focus on this subgenre, it is good to discuss briefly marriage in Tivland

The Migration of Tiv People into the Benue Valley

The understanding of Tiv migration to their present location is based on oral traditions. To this, various scholars documented these migration stories for easier understanding as observed by Awai, G.K. According to (Rubingh 1969:62), the Tiv all agree that their original home was to the southeast and inside Cameroon. The Tiv are uncertain as to the time when they began their migration northward, but it was probably about eleven generations ago, this according to Rubingh. He cites Downes that, the really general migration into the present tribal area began around 1800, and Tiv were present south of the Benue River in large numbers by 1850. The various clans shifted position until 1890 when the boundaries were rather well-established and permanent settlement undertaken. Much lore of the Tiv stems from this stupendous sojourn northward, though the point of departure is itself no longer known. Rubingh (1969: 63), further cites R. Abraham and Downes thus; They feel that Tiv began to move down from the Sonkwala hills where they were living at that time. These hills are located a few miles southeast of the town Obudu…East and Akiga located Swem Hill (which is the Tiv name for the hill so revered in their history) about thirty-five miles further southeast from Sonkwalla and they feel that the Tiv moved from here on to Ibinda hills, the next stage on their journey.

In a recent study conducted by Akpenpuun Dzurgba (2007: 28) about Tiv nation, he identified Swem as the place where the Tiv migrated from to their present location in Benue State. Dzurgba said a province in Cameroon is an equivalent of a state such as Benue State of Nigeria. Of the three Cameroonian sub-divisions, Akwaya sub-division is probably the land to which the Tiv refer to as Swem which they claim is their ancestral home land. Akwaya sub-division or Akwaya Local Government is located in the South-west Province or Southwest State in Southern Cameroon. Akwaya sub-division has been revealed and identified by the study as the ancestral homeland of the Tiv. Swem has also been revealed and identified. Swem exists in Akwaya sub-division, or Akwaya Local Government Area. In Akwaya, there are a range of mountains and one of them is the highest of them all. This highest mountain is called Swem even by the people of Akwaya. The study has therefore, confirmed the Tiv’s claim that they had once lived as a single community on a mountain called Swem. The location of Swem that had been vaguely indicated as lying to the south-east of Tivland has been revealed and identified as Akwaya sub-division in the South-west province in South-Western Cameroon. Swem is a real mountain which is located in Akwaya sub-division in South-west province in South-Western Cameroon. Dzurgba further stated that Swem was flat at the top and crops were grown on it. Because Swem was a long mountain range with a flat top, the Tiv, as a single community, would settle on top of Swem for security reasons. During the period of migration or human movements worldwide, war was the only means of diplomacy or negotiation. Territorial integrity and security of life and property depended largely on military victory. These were probably the reasons why the Tiv settled on the long flat top of Swem. Dzurgba explains further that when the population grew and became too large for the Swem settlement, the Tiv had to move down to look for an agrarian land, but that was not immediately available in the Swem vicinity. That, in addition, other racial groups had already settled around the mountain ranges in Akwaya in particular and South-west Cameroon in general. It was on this note that, the Tiv followed River Katsina-Ala from Cameroon down to the Benue valley where they found enough agrarian land for themselves (Dzurgba 2007: 29). To this, the Tiv finally migrated from Swem in Akwaya sub-division of Cameroon and finally settled in the Benue Valley of Central Nigeria. Scholars of Tiv nation documented that in course of Tiv migration to their present place of stay, they came in contact with different ethnic tribes who already occupied the present Benue Valley. Jukun, Etulo, Abakwa, Chamba, Idoma, Igede, Udam, Ugee and other tribes. But because of Tiv military strength, they overcame these tribes and sent them away and subsequently occupied the present Benue Valley.www.terkimbitexas.com

Marriage in Tivland

Tiv marriage forms can be seen through four basic phases. The earliest was yamshe, marriage by exchange: a man who needed a wife located another man who had the same need. They then exchanged their sisters or daughters as wives. Next, there was the kwase-ngohol / tsuen / kôrun, marriage by capture. This was divided into two. There was, first, the forceful snatching of a woman from her parents house, market or during travelling is what is known as /tsuen kwase/ migration, caused many “inter tar [that is inter-clan] wars” in Tivland (Makar 1994: 141, see also Akiga 1939: 137). It therefore became necessary to have the second form of this type of marriage. Akiga (1939: 141) has referred to this form as the “honorable marriage by capture: the iye.” Wegh (1998: 55) correctly describes it, though inexhaustibly, thus:'iye' began with a young man accompanied by his friends going into another country [district] to find a wife. The target in this case was no longer married women, but the unmarried girls. There the young men stayed with a man whose mother was from their own country [district]. They then sent out friends, or relatives, as gobetweens, who scouted for girls of marriageable ages, and selected one for the young man. Once the young man had received all necessary information, he made the initial contact with the girl. [Now he visited the girl’s house,] then the wooing of the girl began. This could go on for months. Ierve (s.d.: 25) too has added to our insight of iye by noting that usually the young men that formed this group and went to another district were, often, each looking for a wife. They also always went with dances. The girls who came to watch the performances often indicated their interest in some of the young men by choosing to dance with them. Ierve goes on to note that if an iye outing was successful, sometimes one man came back with many wives. But most of the times, the girls did not elope with their fiancés immediately. Whenever they finally eloped, however, the father or brother of the girl was usually compensated later with a girl. Thus, the iye marriage type was eventually like the yamshe exchange marriage.

The third phase and form of Tiv marriage was what Rupert East (in Akiga 1939: 159) said the Tiv used to call kwase u sha uikya, marriage by purchase. Akiga (1939: 159) explained this further: a woman was “bought as a slave and then married. Women of this kind were mostly purchased from the Utyisha, from the Dam, and from more distant clans.” Finally, the Tiv married by kwase-kemen, that is, marriage by bride price. This came about in 1927 when the colonial administration abolished all other forms of marriage and insisted that marriage should strictly be by the payment of bride price. Thus, a man, on choosing a girl, would demonstrate his marital intentions to her and her people by taking gifts to them and providing other needful services to them as well. This went on till the girl’s family, satisfied with the suitor’s cumulative goodwill, asked him to come and pay the bride price. Today, this form of marriage has developed into quite a number of processes unnecessary of enumeration here. Whatever the processes in any district, the marriage contract is based on bride price. It needs to be added that in many cases, especially now, the suitor often elopes with his fiancée. The bride price and other things are usually done afterwards.

The Tiv traditional marriage dance

Whatever type of marriage was done, there was always an artistic celebration of the matrimony. There were two types of marriage dances. The first was the one that took place immediately a bride was brought to the groom’s place. This was usually called kwasekuhan or kwasegeren (literally, celebrating the bride or ululating for the bride respectively). This can still be found, though in a less zealous form, in some Tiv villages. But the second type of the marriage dance is, in my estimation, 99% extinct. This was the dance that took place much later when a man decided that he should demonstrate his wealth by hosting the Ivom or Dam ceremony. This was a nuptial dance done only by men who were wealthy. Even then it was not every wife that attracted this dance. Unless a woman came from a particularly long geographical or cultural distance from her husband’s, this dance was not organised in her honour. The Ivom or Dam marriage dance was therefore not for every woman. And definitely, not every man had the wherewithal to marry from a geographical or cultural distance long enough to host the dance; besides, the hosting cost for the occasion was rather forbidding. Our focus here is not on the Ivom or Dam marriage dance. We are concerned only with kwasekuhan, the marriage dance performed immediately a bride was brought to the house of the groom’s age mate or the groom’s house.3 This dance was the most common and the most important. Whoever married and did not host it was usually disregarded in his community. Besides, the dance was also an honour to the bride. It was an artistic way of welcoming her to her new home and getting her acquainted with the environment. Thus, failure to host a marriage dance for a bride was a shameful thing for her. It disabled her from holding her head high among her fellow women. This dance was therefore a necessary tradition. Indeed, it was impossible to think of marriage without it.

The dance usually took place at two settings. First, it was done in the house of an age mate or distant relation of the groom to whose house the groom took his wife for that purpose. The bride passed the night there but hardly slept at night because singing and dancing were on until dawn. There was more singing, drumming and dancing when the bride was, in the evening of the following day, taken to the groom’s house. Brides were customarily brought home at evening, when people had taken their dinners and were relaxing outside to while away time before going indoors to sleep. This was when the angwe proclamation was heard at the top of the announcer’s singsong voice.

The angwe, having fixed wordings with only the names of the persons mentioned in it changing to suit different marriage situations, was nuptial news stating who had married. It was the Tiv traditional system of mass communication specifically for marriage. So the angwe [tidings] announcer always went slightly ahead of the party coming with the bride. The following were the words of the angwe: Tidings gbeee … tidings! Chief! Tidings ooo … Tidings! Whose tidings is it? It is the tidings of Tako Gbor Ndor Kunya! It is the tidings of Achulu Gbor Ndor Kunya! Whose tidings is it? It is the tidings of Iornenge Akpa! Tidings walk about gbee … gbee … gbee … (Ululations).4 The ululations concluding the announcement were usually done by the group (made up mostly of women and girls) escorting the wife, a bit in front of whom the tidings announcer was going. This group started performing some nuptial poems right there on the way. People from surrounding compounds now rushed to the road where the angwe was heard and joined the party. Others went to the house of the groom and waited there, singing and dancing. They knew the groom by the names in the angwe. For example, lines 4, 6, and 8 above contain the names of elders whose son has married. It would therefore not be difficult to trace the groom’s house. In some places, there were no musical instruments at all but in others, the following made up the nuptial musical ensemble: the indyer or ilyu (jumbo or medium-size) slit-log drums, the open-ended gbande drum, the double-ended genga drum, the kwen metal gong, the gida woodwind, the tsough rattles etc. These instruments notwithstanding, singing, and not musical instrumentation, was the most important aspect of the Tiv marriage dance.

Social and Political Organization

Most Tiv have a highly developed sense of genealogy, with descent being reckoned patrilineally. Ancestry is traced to an ancient individual named Tiv, who had two sons; all Tiv consider themselves a member either of Ichongo (descendants of son Chongo) or of Ipusu (descendants of son Ipusu). Ichongo and Ipusu are each divided into several major branches, which in turn are divided into smaller branches. The smallest branch, or minimal lineage, is the "'ipyaven'". Members of an ipyaven tend to live together, the local kin-based community being called the "tar". This form of social organization, called a segmentary lineage, is seen in various parts of the world, but it is particularly well known from African societies (Middleton and Tait 1958). The Tiv are the best-known example from West Africa, as documented by Laura Bohannan (1952) and by Paul J. Bohannan and Laura Bohannan (1953); in East Africa the best-known example is the Nuer, documented by E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1940).

The Tiv had no administrative divisions and no chiefs or councils. Leadership was based on age, influence, and affluence. The leaders' functions were to furnish safe conduct, arbitrate disputes within their lineages, sit on moots, and lead their people in all external and internal affairs.

The Tiv ethnic group is the fourth largest Ethnic group in Nigeria after the three major Ethnic groups.

These socio-political arrangements caused great frustration to British colonial attempts to subjugate the population and establish administration on the lower Benue. The strategy of Indirect Rule, which the British felt to be highly successful in controlling Hausa and Fulani populations in Northern Nigeria, was ineffective in a segmentary society like the Tiv (Dorward 1969). Colonial officers tried various approaches to administration, such as putting the Tiv under the control of the nearby Jukun, and trying to exert control through the councils of elders ("Jir Tamen"); these met with little success. The British administration in 1934 divided the Tiv into Clans, Kindreds, and Family Groups. The British appointed native heads of these divisions as well. These administrative divisions are gradually assuming a reality which they never had originally.

Members of the Tiv group are found in many areas across the globe, such as the United States and United Kingdom. In these countries they hold unions, known as MUT (Mdzough U Tiv, which rhymes with Mutual Union of Tiv in English), where members can assemble and discuss issues concerning their people across the world, but especially back in Nigeria. The arm of the MUT serving the United States of America is known as MUTA (Mzough U Tiv ken Amerika, or Mutual Union of the Tiv in America), for instance.

Before the introduction of printed material, radio, film and television, mass communication in Nigeria was done through the indigenous people with the use of traditional political systems of communication. The rulers and the chiefs governed their ethnic communities and communicated with them through various channels.

Tiv Music and Communication

Locally made musical instruments were traditionally used for political and ceremonial communication. The key instruments are as follows:


This is an instrument used to convey specials messages to the people of the community, such messages as the newborn child of the King, his naming ceremony, the crowning of a new king, to gather people together during the marriage ceremony of the king and the king’s son’s marriage ceremony. This instrument was used to convey all the messages to the people to assemble at the square for the ceremony, as well as when there is an enemy attack on the community, a warning sound of the kakaki is blown to alert those whom can defend the society and every citizen to be alert.


A light wooden instrument, it was used to pass messages to the people of the village, probably for the invitation of the people for a particular meeting of the elders at the king’s palace or for the people to gather at the market square for a message from or by the king.it is now used as an instrument to indicate the death of someone.


Instrument made of wood and named by the number of holes on the face of the instrument.[4]


A heavy wooden instrument carved out of mahogany trunk. It is used especially during festivals of masquerades, yam festivals with music to pass messages for the ceremonies, celebration of good harvest for the year.


It is used together with agbande (drums) combined with ageda at festivals to pass a message across to the people for a call for the display of culture. it is believed to have originated in the early 1950s but was made popular at about the late 1970s.


It’s an instrument like a violin, used for music and dances in conjunction with agbande (agbande) at festivals and dance occasions, sometimes to announce the death of a leader or an elder of the community, during this period it is played sorrowfully for the mourning of the dead, most time it is played funerals.


Agbande (plural), a set of crafted wooden musical instrument used to compliment agbande at festivals, this is particularly large and it is played by the young men of the community, the special drum beats communicates special messages and music for the festivals to come and during the festivals, for instance, signifies a royal occasions such as the coronation and funeral.

Ortindin (Ortyom)-Messenger

Usually he is chosen by the elders of the community to do errands for the elders and the leader of the community. He is sent out to the heads of the neighbouring families for a crucial meeting at the head of all the leaders of the community.

Kolugh ku Bua-Cow Horn

This is an instrument made out of cow horns, like in my community, there are farmers' associations that use this instrument when they have job to do, probably they are invite to make ridges on a piece of land, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the association will use this medium to wake up the members for the work they have for that day.

Indigenous communication is not only vertical, from the rulers to the subjects, it is also horizontal. Individuals communicate with society through physical and metaphysical means. A farm owner, for example, may mount a charm conspicuously on his farm in order to stress private ownership and to scare off human intruders.

The fear of herbalists and witches influences social behaviour considerably.

Rainmakers communicate their power to disrupt events through various psychological means. Village sectors in Africa communicate mostly via the market-place of ideas contributed by traditional religion, observances, divination, mythology, age-grades, the chiefs courts, the elder's square, secret and title societies, the village market square, the village drum(gbande) men, indeed the total experiences of the villager in his environment.

Unlike the mass media, access to the native media is culturally determined and not economic. Only the selected group of young men or the elders can disseminate information generally. The young only disseminate general information about events and the social welfare of their communities using the media mentioned above.

The Tiv people of Benue state still practise some of this traditional system of communication, using the kakai'S, agbande, indyer, adiguve and ilyu etc., nevertheless the increase in the western world media is threatening the cultural communication system.

Many of the communities in Benue state still use these instruments to convey messages to the people of their community, and it is helping a great deal, since there is a language barrier to the people with the introduction of the western world means of communication, using the western language (English) to convey information.


  1. Duggan, E. de C. (1932) "Notes on the Munshi ("Tivi") Tribe of middle belt Nigeria: Some Historical Outlines" Journal of the Royal African Society 31(123)
  2. Tiv language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. Boyle, Andrew (1962). Trenchard Man of Vision. St James's Place, London: Collins. pp. 8890.
  4. Lane, M.G.M. (1954). "The music of Tiv". African Music: Journal of the African Music Society. African Music Society. 1 (1): 12-15. doi:10.21504/amj.v1i1.220. ISSN 0065-4019. Retrieved 18 May 2016.

See also



ISBN 978-3-631-36816-9 / US-ISBN 978-0-8204-4801-5 pb. The Chieftaincy institution in the Tiv context has been analysed to establish its dynamic qualities. In its interaction with the modern state since the colonial era, it has been established that the institution has undergone tremendous changes - losing authority but still retaining relevance for the Tiv masses and elite who, before the colonial advent, had no chieftaincy. The large issue of the role of traditional authorities in a modern democratic state has been examined from a comparative perspective. Contents: Chieftaincy Politics: The Tor Tiv and the impact of partisan politics - Military rule - Elite and democracy on its role in the transformation of Tivland, Nigeria.

Unpublished works

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