Banditry rips open hidden historical conflict between Hausa and Fulani


by Farooq A. Kperogi, 25 October 2022


The cultural and ethnic melding of the Hausa and the Fulani people of northern Nigeria is so deep, so labyrinthine, and so time-honored that a hitherto non-existent ethnic category called the “Hausa-Fulani” was invented by Nigeria’s southern press to describe the emergent ethnic alchemy it produced.


Northern intellectuals resented the label at first. For example, the late Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman, the famously radical 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 mischievous 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 Hausa and half Kanuri.


More than that, though, Buhari is culturally and linguistically Hausa. Like most people in Nigeria’s northwest who trace their patrilineal bloodline to the Fulani (including the emirs), he doesn’t speak a lick of Fulfulde (as the language of the Fulani is called) and is completely divorced from the culture of the “unmingled” Fulani who now live mostly in Nigeria’s northeast and in the bush 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 people of southwestern Nigeria 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 one and the same people and that their internal strife is no outsider’s business. In other words, it’s a sibling squabble. This attitude has informed news media reporting of the conflict between the Hausa and the Fulani.


Banditry straining relations between Hausa and Fulani


But the emergence and intensification of kidnapping for ransom and other forms of rural and urban banditry in the northwest where most of the perpetrators are Fulani and most of the victims are Hausa is 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 defence, but Fulani people say the yan banga self-defence 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 their age-old, Islam-inspired ethnic fusion. Whole Hausa villages have been wiped out by Fulani gangsters in revenge killings in such states as Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto, and Kebbi, just as entire Fulani villages and settlements have been exterminated by Hausa yan sakai.


This had been going on for years under the radar of the national and international media until the BBC World Service’s Africa Eye programme brought it to the forefront of global attention in its 24 July 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 treatment 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 it fined local TV stations that rebroadcast it, there has been an open discussion of hitherto culturally taboo subjects such as whether Usman Dan Fodio whose jihad inaugurated the current Fulani ruling families in Muslim northern Nigeria was a Hausa-hating Fulani ethnic supremacist.


Dan Fodio’s jihad and its ethnic character


Islam had been established for centuries and was already deeply entrenched in Hausaland 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-aṣnāf majlūb 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 Hausaland, he needed to justify this by repudiating the Islam that the Hausa people had practised. In his 1806 treatise titled Bayan Wujub Al-Hijra ‘Ala L-‘ibad (Explanation of the Obligation of Emigration upon the Servants of God), Dan Fodio referenced Ahmad Baba’s essay and repudiated it posthumously by asserting that what was true of Ahmad Baba’s claims during his time “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, wrote Infaq al-Maysur in 1813, exactly 200 years after Ahmad Baba, and contested the notion that Hausaland 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 that of Bauchi (who is Hausa), were Fulani. These questions are especially important because the Fulani emirs who dislodged Hausa Muslim rulers have been doing exactly what the Hausa rulers were accused of by Fulani jihadists—keeping multiple wives and concubines, oppression of everyday folks called the talakawa, belief in fortune-telling, 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.


The “Fulani factor” in politics


These debates aren’t new, of course. For example, in a 30 June 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 8 June 2014, changed his name to Muhammadu Sanusi II, and was dethroned on 9 March 2020) caused a stir among not just 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 distinctiveness of their ethnic identity.  


Sanusi isolated Nigerian leaders of Fulani descent—Ahmadu Bello, Shehu Shagari, Murtala Mohammed, and Muhammadu Buhari—whom he said even their “greatest enemies” respected because they putatively 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 of President Muhammadu Buhari, and who is ethnically Hausa from Jigawa, was incensed. In a response titled “Sanusi’s Racist Rubbish” on 7 July 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 notion of a Fulani culture that makes Fulani people such good, just leaders by calling attention to the atrocities 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 in 1950 of the Northern Elements Progressives Union (NEPU), the first political party in northern Nigeria. “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 as a consequence of the bloodstained conflict between Hausa farmers and Fulani herders. In fact, there are now calls for the reformation of the emirate system to strip emirship of its exclusivity to people of Fulani ancestry. In response, Fulani leaders like the sultan of Sokoto are enlisting the help of the region’s clerical establishment to use Islam to heal the festering divisions between the Hausa and the Fulani. It’s anybody’s guess how far this will go.


Farooq Kperogi is Professor of Communication at Kennesaw State University and newspaper columnist. He is the author of Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World (New York: Peter Lang, 2015); Nigeria's Digital Diaspora: Citizen Media, Democracy, and Participation (Rochester, NY: Rochester University Press, 2020); and Digital Dissidence and Social Media Censorship in Africa (London and New York: Routledge, 2022).

Comments: 1
  • #1

    ANONYMOUS (Friday, 23 December 2022 09:29)

    The Emir of Bauchi is Gere, not Hausa as you claim.