Farooq Kperogi : Rising ethnic tension between Hausa and Fulani
The cultural and ethnic melding of Northern Nigeria’s Hausa and the Fulani people is so deep, so labyrinthine, so time-honored, and so unexampled that a fictitious ethnic category called the “Hausa-Fulani” was invented by Nigeria’s southern press to describe the emergent ethnic alchemy it has produced.
Northern intellectuals resented the label at first. For example, the late Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman, the famously iconoclastic professor of history at the Ahmadu Bello University who was ethnically Fulani and who was the scion of the Katsina and Kano royal families, condemned the hyphenation of Hausa and Fulani as both ill-willed and ignorant.
But several Northern Nigerian elites of Hausa and Fulani filiation have now enthusiastically embraced it. President Muhammadu Buhari, for instance, told the Weekly Trust in 1999 that he loved the hyphenated Hausa-Fulani identity that the southern press invented because it encapsulates the complexity of his own identity. His father is Fulani while his mother is half Kanuri and half Hausa.
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More than that, though, Buhari is culturally and linguistically Hausa. Like most people in Nigeria’s northwest who trace patrilineal bloodline to the Fulani (including most of the emirs), he doesn’t speak a lick of Fulfulde (as the language of the Fulani is called in Nigeria) and is completely divorced from the culture of the “unmingled” Fulani who now live mostly in Nigeria’s northeast and in the bushes elsewhere in the country.
Over the years, the northern political elite not only used the common Islamic heritage of the Hausa and the Fulani people as an instrument to construct and cement the notion of an undivided and indivisible Hausa-Fulani identity, they also encouraged other parts of the country to see them as one, undifferentiated people.
In time, the rest of the country came to regard the Hausa and the Fulani as indistinguishable. A popular quip among the Yoruba says, “Gambari pa Fulani ko lejo ninu,” which roughly translates as “If a Hausa person kills a Fulani person, there is no case,” implying that the Hausa and the Fulani are homogenous people whose internal strife are no more than evanescent, resolvable sibling squabble.
But the emergence and unabating intensification of kidnapping for ransom and other forms of rural and urban banditry in the Northwest where most of the villains are Fulani and most of the victims are Hausa are rupturing the centuries-old ethnic harmony between the Hausa and the Fulani that Nigerians had taken for granted.
In response to the rural and urban banditry by mostly Fulani brigands against Hausa people, Hausa people have formed vigilante groups called yan sakai or yan banga for self-defense, but Fulani people say the yan banga self-defense groups often indiscriminately murder innocent Fulani people who are not even remotely connected with abductions and murders.
This has provoked an endless cycle of recriminations and retaliatory violence between Hausa and Fulani people and is threatening the age-old, Islam-inspired ethnic fusion between them.
This has been going on for years under the radar of the national and international media until BBC’s BBC Africa Eye brought it to the forefront of global attention in its Jul 24, 2022, documentary titled “The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara.” The documentary showed that although the Hausa and the Fulani share a common culture, religion, heritage, and language, they are, for the most part, divided and rarely mix in rural areas. They fight over land, water, and food.
Self-confessed Fulani bandits told the BBC that Hausa people enjoy preferential treatments in government jobs, that Fulani people face discrimination in the formal sector in northern Nigeria, and that kidnapping, banditry, and indiscriminate mass murders were the only way they could call attention to their neglect.
Following the documentary, which so unsettled the Nigerian government that local TV stations that rebroadcast it were fined, there has been an open discussion, particularly in Arewa social media circles, of hitherto culturally taboo subjects such as whether Usman Dan Fodio whose jihad inaugurated the current Fulani ruling families in much of Muslim northern Nigeria was a Hausa-hating Fulani ethnic supremacist.
Islam had been centuries old and already deeply entrenched in Hausa land before Usman Dan Fodio’s nineteenth-century jihad, which many historians have called a “Fulani war.” The well-regarded seventeenth-century Songhai Muslim scholar by the name of Ahmad Baba, for instance, had recognized Hausa land as a bastion of Islam.
In a 1613 essay titled, “Al-kashf wa-l-bayān li-aṣnāfmajlūb al-Sūdān” (translated into English as “The Exposition and Explanation Concerning the Varieties of Transported Black Africans”), he wrote that “the people of Kano, some of Zakzak [Zaria], the people of Katsina, the people of Gobir, and all of the Songhay” lived under ideal Islamic rule and could never be enslaved by other Muslims.
About 200 years later, when Dan Fodio decided to “reform” the Islam he met in Hausa land, he repudiated the Islam that the Hausa people had practiced. In his 1806 treatise titled “Bayan Wujub Al-Hijra, Ala L-Ibad,” Dan Fodio rebutted Ahmad Baba’s thesis by asserting that what was true of Hausa land when Ahmad Baba wrote, “might not necessarily be true at all other times, since every scholar relates what he sees in his own days.” Dan Fodio’s son, Muhammad Bello, also wrote Infaq al-mansur in 1813, exactly 200 years after Ahmad Baba, and contested the notion that Hausa land was ruled by Islamic precepts.
Now, in everyday dialogic engagements on social media, in the marketplace, and in the streets, Hausa and Fulani people are openly talking about the jihad and its decidedly ethnic character. Hausa people are asking why all the emirs that emerged from the jihad, except for that of Bauchi, were Fulani. (Emirs in Borgu in Kwara and Niger states are not the product of the jihad and are not Fulani.)
These questions are especially important because the Fulani emirs who dislodged Hausa Muslim rulers have been doing exactly what the Hausa Muslim rulers were accused of by Fulani jihadists—keeping multiple wives and concubines, oppressing everyday folks called the talakawa, believing and partaking in fortunetelling, etc. Besides, in Islam, leadership isn’t hereditary, so Hausa people are asking why a supposedly Islamic jihad has entrenched Fulani ethnic monarchies to the exclusion of the native Hausa populations.
These debates aren’t new, of course. For example, in a June 30, 2000, article titled “The Fulani Factor in Nigerian Politics” published in the Weekly Trust, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (who later became the emir of Kano on June 8, 2014, and was dethroned on March 9, 2020) caused a stir among not just other Nigerians but also among Hausa people when he said although the Fulani in northern Nigeria have lost their language and culture to the Hausa, they still cherish the irreproducible cultural and genetic distinctiveness that their ethnic identity imbues them with.
He isolated Nigerian leaders of putative Fulani line of descent—Ahmadu Bello, Shehu Shagari, Murtala Mohammed, and Muhammadu Buhari—whom he said even their “greatest enemies” respect because they supposedly embodied incomparable and uniquely Fulani values (even when they are/were not culturally Fulani).
He pointed out that the same could not be said of “other prominent non-Fulani contemporaries of these great men,” including military Head of State Ibrahim Babangida, who is Hausa, and Sani Abacha, who was Kanuri but born and raised in Kano. Sanusi then said the Fulani are “culturally programmed, generation after generation, to imbibe the best spirits of what makes good leadership, to a far greater extent than competing cultures.”
Garba Shehu, now a spokesperson for President Muhammadu Buhari, who is ethnically Hausa from Jigawa, was incensed. In a response titled “Sanusi’s Racist Rubbish” on July 7, 2000, Shehu wrote: “When I read Sanusi L. Sanusi’s article ‘The Fulani Factor in Nigerian Politics’…I came away with the feeling that the writer wanted to do one of two things: to either be ridiculous or to insult all of us who are not Fulani with some racist crap.”
Shehu invalidated Sanusi’s ethnic supremacist notion of a Fulani culture that makes Fulani people such good, just leaders by calling attention to the atrocities that were perpetuated against Hausa people by Fulani emirs—or what he called the “well-documented acts of brigandage” by the “Fulani oligarchy”— which instigated the emergence of the Northern Elements Progressives Union (NEPU).
“Where was he when the late Sa’adu Zungur, Aminu Kano, and company fought Fulani rulers who forced Hausa peasants to work the emirs’ farms, snatched wives, plundered what was kept in their trust, and appropriated/mismanaged farmlands and other resources belonging to their subjects?” Shehu wrote.
These sorts of emotive brickbats between everyday Hausa and Fulani people are escalating and becoming mainstream in the aftermath of the bloodstained conflict between Hausa farmers and Fulani herders. In fact, there are now calls, from both Hausa and Fulani interlocutors, for the reformation of the emirate system to strip emirship of its exclusivity to people of Fulani ancestry.
I think these are transitory, spur-of-the-moment tensile pushes and pulls that may soon abate, but it’s astonishing that it’s even happening.
Farooq Kperogi is a renowned newspaper columnist and United States-based Professor of Journalism.