Idioms of ethno-religious othering and conflict in northern Nigeria

By Moses E. Ochonu, February 2022


As northern Nigeria continues to convulse under the weight of ethnoreligious conflict, Islamist insurgency, and rural banditry, it has become important to interrogate the nexus between the breakdown of intergroup relations and these raging conflicts. Relatedly, there is a growing imperative to locate the salient rhetorical and quotidian sources of long-simmering tensions and distrust between the region’s main religious, sectarian, and ethnic communities. As this article will show, this breakdown of trust is reflected in, and even accelerated by, the language that people use in everyday life.


Northern Nigeria is perhaps more ethnically diverse than any other region of Nigeria, despite appearances to the contrary and despite the ascription of Hausaphone homogeneity to the region by southern Nigerians and western media observers. Unlike other regions of Nigeria, northern Nigerian identity politics are formulated and maintained through the idiom of religion and religious difference. In northern Nigeria, religion trumps ethnicity as an overarching identity marker, and ethnic differences are often rhetorically articulated in religious terms — mostly in terms of Muslim versus Christian.


This is the reason why scholars of Hausa identity such as Frank Salomone and Benedetta Rossi conclude that the primary criterion for “being” Hausa is being Muslim, and having a facility with the Hausa language. It is also why they use the expression “becoming Hausa” to underscore the assimilative and porous character of Hausa identity, a process by which many Hausa-speaking non-ethnic Hausa people, Christian and otherwise, can and do become Hausa by converting to Islam. If becoming a Muslim grants a Hausa-speaking person entry into the Hausa normative identity of northern Nigeria, it earns that non-ethnic Hausa person ostracization in their natal ethnic milieu, as Dattijo Kabir Muhammad, my Facebook interlocutor, chimed in when I crowdsourced this topic recently on my social media platform.


In the majority-Muslim Hausaphone areas of northern Nigeria, Christians and traditional worshippers occupy a liminal, marginal sociopolitical space carved out for them by the majority Hausa/Fulani/Kanuri/Nupe Muslim identity formation. For Christian or non-Muslim minorities, then, the primary instrument of expressing solidarity, grievance, or anger at the exclusionary politics of the majority is a religious identity defined as non-Muslim or, in some cases, militantly Christian. For the Muslim majority, one strategy of policing the boundaries and privileges of normative Muslim political identity is the deployment of terms and labels that mark non-Muslim minorities out as outsiders and potentially subversive competitors.


Historically, non-Muslim identities in northern Nigeria were reactive, drawing on local and global Christian solidarities and idioms to challenge perceived religious discrimination and marginalization. On the other hand, Muslim suspicion of northern Christians as agents of a Judeo-Christian global anti-Muslim conspiracy and as domestic insurgents against Muslims’ political power has produced two phenomena. The first is that Muslims in the region have deployed increasingly toxic terms of othering to describe Christian and other non-Muslim interlocutors. The second is that some Muslims have turned away from the global Christian and western influences and spaces that Christian northern Nigerians have adopted and leaned on and have instead more self-consciously embraced the Muslim world and its influences.


The result of all these crosscutting phenomena is the saturation of northern Nigerian popular and academic discourses with toxic terms of othering, division, and devaluation that have further fractured social relations in the region, producing new conflicts and exacerbating old ones.


Idioms of devaluation and violence


In northern Nigeria, language, idioms, and labels were invented and then evolved as part of efforts to mark the religious “inside” from the religious “outside” and to keep “outsiders” out of the “inside” or force them to convert and assimilate to be given entry into the “inside”. These idioms demean, devalue, dehumanize, and sometimes mark certain people out for abuse or legitimize and authorize violence against them.


In Hausaphone Muslim areas of the region, the word "arne" (plural: arna) is so banal in everyday communicative use that many users do not realize the hurt it causes, the division and distrust it promotes, and the strain it puts on cross-religious relationships.


Arne is a term of othering. People who use the term are saying that the designated person is an ungodly, inferior outsider, almost an untouchable. It is also a signal, a dog whistle, to co-religionists to regard the "arne" as, forgive the tautology, an "arne", a person permanently excluded from the in-group, a person who cannot be fully accepted or trusted.


The word has become so normalized that Muslim Hausa speakers even say it in the presence of Christian and non-Muslim Hausa speakers with no care for its derogatory connotations or the feelings of their non-Muslim interlocutors or acquaintances.


One Muslim friend once sent me via WhatsApp the audio of a political song from Taraba State in which the singer uses the words “arne” and “arna” generously. I was so offended that I made the friend aware that this was not acceptable, especially since, as a Hausa speaker, he knew what “arne” meant - a derogatory reference to people like me - and should have realized that it was inappropriate to send me the song.


My shock was that he hadn't on his own realized that I would be offended by the song, whatever its political message was and however agreeable that message was to me. He even seemed surprised that I was offended. That is a perfect illustration of the normalization of primordial insults and derogatory labels in northern Nigeria.


I have heard some people say in Hausa “ai arne ba zagi ba” (“arne” is not an insult). To Christians and other non-Muslim northern Nigerians, it is more than an insult. It denies them humanity, equality, and dignity, and seeks to erase their membership in a sociopolitical community. One Dauda Musa Jika, a northern Christian who commented on my Facebook wall during my crowdsourcing exercise on this topic described the use of “arne” as a form of “emotional bullying” and narrated how he once confronted his Muslim friends to express his anguish and discomfort when they used the words to refer to other Christians in his presence. Another northern Christian contributor to the discussion, Yakubu Afuwai, describes hearing Hausa Muslim children call him and other non-Muslims “arna” when they walked past predominantly Muslim settlements in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna.


It is remarkable that there is no standard alternative, neutral word in the quotidian Hausa-Muslim lexicon for Christians and non-Muslims. Hausa is one of the most inventive and dynamic languages in the world and it is always assimilating and Hausa-izing words from other languages to describe new phenomena, or coining entirely new words as Hausa speakers encounter new phenomena and add them to their repertoire. The Hausa rendering of “Christian” is Krista/Crista and is the acceptable reference for Christians. It is used by sensitive elites in polite company, but “arne” is the go-to terminology in popular, everyday conversation.


Beyond quotidian rhetorical violence


This phenomenon extends beyond the sphere of popular speech. Turning to the realm of scholarship, the word "pagan" is often used by northern Nigerian scholars (Christians and Muslims) to refer to traditional religious worshippers or pre-Christian and pre-Islamic cultures, societies, and beliefs. Why "pagan", a colonial neo-Christian term of contempt? Why not "traditionalist" or traditional religious adherents/practitioners?


In historical writing on the 1804-1807 Sokoto jihad in northern Nigeria, it is common to see the Fulfulde word “Habe” or “Haabe” (singular: kaaɗo) used to refer to the pre-jihad Muslim Hausa rulers. Habe is a loaded, strategically deployed Fulfulde term of religious and quasi-racial delegitimization and contempt. According to N. M. Manga, a native Fulfulde speaker who participated in my crowdsourced discussion, the term “has the same derogatory connotation as ‘arne’”.


The term was used to question the Muslim bona fides of the pre-jihad Hausa rulers, to declare takfir (excommunication) against them, and to legitimize jihad against them. Moreover, “Habe”, the historian and anthropologist Murray Last explains, also has the connotation of autochthonous, traditional African, negroid, and inferior. These traits were posited in distinction from and binary opposition to Fulani Muslim identity, which was articulated by the jihad leaders and their Fulani followers as a cosmopolitan, quasi-Arab (and by that claim authentically Muslim), aristocratic, and thus superior ethno-religious demographic.


Despite this provenance and etymology, many historians and scholars from adjacent disciplines (some of whom are ethnically Hausa and even possibly descendants of the pre-jihad Hausa rulers) have uncritically adopted “Habe” in their writings on the Dan Fodio-led jihad. They have in effect been seduced and suckered into the derogatory triumphalist lexicon of the Fulani reformist leaders of the jihad. This new language of nineteenth century Sudanic reformist Islam delegitimized pre-jihad Islamic practice in the region as a syncretistic Islam steeped in tsafi (a derogatory term for African traditional religious objects, rituals, and performances of supernatural power). It also sharpened the perception of non-Muslims as enemies of the umma (the worldwide Islamic community), to be vanquished or subjected as amana tributary communities (subalterns who pay a special tax known as the jizya to their Muslim overlords).


In the Kanuri zone of Muslim northern Nigeria, where the people take pride in their 1,000-year Islamic history and consider the defunct Bornu empire the cradle of Islam in this part of West Africa, there is a discourse of Islamic authenticity and superiority that not only contributes to the rhetorical othering of non-Muslims but also gestures in the direction of devaluing the Muslim experiences and identities of non-Kanuri people. The Kanuri term “Kirdi”, the equivalent of the Hausa “Arne”, is used to underscore the claim of Kanuri Muslim authenticity, which is often posited against what the Kanuri perceive to be the religious inferiority of non-Kanuri Muslims and non-Muslims alike. As Ibrahim Zakariyau, an interlocutor who participated in my crowdsourcing event, stated, “Kirdi also means Arne, [as the Kanuri] consider themselves as the only true Muslims.”


There are also northern Christian non-Hausa terms such as “Malo” that are derogatory signifiers for Hausa/Fulani Muslims. The term is of disputed provenance, but it has acquired a quotidian conversational status analogous to “Aboki”, a pejorative term used by Nigerians from the south to refer condescendingly to northerners, whom they consider low-class. “Malo” is mostly used in homogenous Christian and non-Hausa speaking religious settings, but it is no less offensive and no less indicative of the growing divisive work of terms that exacerbate ethno-religious acrimony and separation in northern Nigeria.


Even a term as banal and as seemingly neutral as "unbeliever", which some Pentecostal Christians use liberally to refer to both non-Christians and differently denominated Christians, has clearly become a derogatory signifier because of its expanding usage contexts and connotations.



Terms of insult, denigration, and othering, in and of themselves, do not cause conflict. However, in societies such as northern Nigeria, with a volatile history of ethno-religious tension and conflict, such terms inflame passions and drive wedges between already divided communities, widening already existing rifts, making primordial violence more likely, and making conflict amelioration more difficult. Terms such as those analysed here are of course not static in meaning, but that is precisely why they are charged and dangerous, because their meanings evolve to capture and express increasingly fraught inter- and intra-group relations and to articulate projects that politically exploit bigotry, hate, mutual anxieties, and ethno-religious fault lines. 


Moses Ebe Ochonu is a Nigerian academic, historian, author and professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

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