Nigerian “bandits” as terrorists by another name?
by Farooq A. Kperogi
Spectacles of bloodcurdling Boko Haram mass murders in northern Nigeria have now been eclipsed by the mass abductions for ransom and nihilistic violence of an unstructured, leaderless gang of outlaws known alternately in the Nigerian media as “bandits” and “Fulani herdsmen”. But who are these bandits? Why are they known by different names even they are the same people? Are they, in fact, Boko Haram in a different guise?
The Nigerian news media is partly to blame for the lack of clarity about the identity of the bloodthirsty gangs that have been spreading pain and homicidal fury all over Nigeria in the last five or so years. When the gangs kidnap and murder men, women, and children in the Muslim north, the news media simply calls them “bandits”. When they do the same in the Christian south and in the Christian Middle Belt, they are called “Fulani herdsmen”. But they are the same people.
In other words, when the villains and the victims share common primordial attributes, the ethnic identity of the villains is concealed and replaced with a neutral identifier, but when the ethnic identities of the villains and the victims are dissimilar, the ethnic identity of the villains is played up.
As enragingly Machiavellian as this seems, it isn’t necessarily deliberate. It is informed more by the dominant reportorial impulse of the news media—which tends to thrive on Manichean binaries, conflictual differences, and sensation to sell news—than by intentional divisiveness. The institutional news media formation in Nigeria in general, and the southern media in particular, lack ready-made mental representations with which to frame a conflict that pits Fulani herders against Hausa farmers or Hausa-speaking ethnic Fulani, or that pits Muslims against Muslims, so they either avoid reporting it altogether or minimise its horrors by rendering the aggressors invisible through nomenclatural vagueness.
A headline such as “Fulani herdsmen kill farmers in Katsina” won’t excite passions and might even be dismissed as counterintuitive in some parts of Nigeria since farmers in Katsina (and other northwestern states) are a mix of Hausa, Fulani, and Hausa-Fulani people. A popular Yoruba quip 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 indistinguishable and that their internal strife is no business of outsiders. This predisposition has partly informed the reporting on crime and criminals in the Muslim north.
Insights from cultivation theory in mass communication scholarship tell us that the news media do not always reflect reality and that they sometimes cultivate it instead. Although the theory originally studied how heavy local TV viewing distorts perception of the prevalence of crime in society, it has been extended to explain how the news media’s habitual framing of news slants perception of reality in general.
One of the inescapable mental frames the news media have caused to percolate in the popular consciousness in Nigeria is that “Fulani herdsmen” are invariably criminals when they are in places that are dominated by Christians. Nonetheless, they are invisible if they ever commit crimes in places where Muslims enjoy numerical and symbolic dominion.
That was why Apostle Johnson Suleiman felt justified to urge his church members on 21 January 2017 to extra-judicially murder “Fulani herdsmen”. “And I told my people, any Fulani herdsman you see around you, kill him,” he said in a widely circulated video. “I have told them in the church here that any Fulani herdsman that just entered by mistake, kill him, kill him! Cut his head off!”
Fulani not a monolith
However, although the news media have unfairly made “Fulani herdsmen” the lexical substitute for “criminals” or “murderers” and thereby given an ethno-occupational identity to crime and criminals, not all herders are Fulani (even though most herders are Fulani) and not all herders are criminals. Even so, there is an emerging consensus in Nigeria that most of the kidnapping for ransom and mass murders these past few years in both Christian and Muslim Nigeria have been perpetrated by people that are identified as ethnically Fulani. Of course, most Fulani people are peaceful, law-abiding citizens.
It’s interesting, though, that the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, which presents itself as the preeminent association of Fulani cattle herders, appears to have officially accepted that some of its members are responsible for the progressive widening of insecurity in Nigeria. Vanguard of 14 December 2020 quoted Muhammadu Kirowa, the association’s president, as saying, “We cannot continue to wallow in denial when it is a fact that the majority of criminals arrested across the country are from within us, our kith and kin [who] have gone into this circle because of our sheer negligence.”
It’s worth pointing out, however, that in spite of media narratives to the contrary, the Fulani are not a monolithic ethnic group. There are at least four distinct Fulani groups in Nigeria today.
The first category of Fulani are the (urban), settled, non-cattle-herding Fulani (whom Hausa people call "Fulanin gida" which literally means, "house Fulani") who have lost their language and culture, particularly in Nigeria's northwest and parts of its northeast and northcentral, and who have intermarried with other ethnic groups. They are Fulani only because they can trace patrilineal descent to a Fulani ancestor— and sometimes because of their embodiment of some phenotypic features associated with the Fulani such as a fair complexion, curly hair, straight nose, slender body type, etc. They are the nucleus of the identity category that is now known as “Hausa-Fulani”. Most “Fulani” emirs in the north, including the Sultan of Sokoto, belong to this category.
The second category are the (urban), settled, non-cattle-herding Fulani who are still wedded to their primordial language and culture, particularly in the northeastern states of Adamawa and Taraba and parts of Gombe and Bauchi. They usually have relatives who still live— and herd cattle— in the "bush” and resent being labelled as anything other than Fulani. They take exception to being called “Hausa-Fulani” because Hausa is only a second—and in some cases a third— language to them. There are even Fulani people in this part of the north who don’t speak Hausa at all, although that number is declining with every generation.
It’s difficult to make definitive statements about the emotional affinities people feel toward other people, but my interactions with the Fulani people of Adamawa and Taraba show that they regard the “Hausa-Fulani” of the northwest as basically Hausa, not Fulani, people.
Because their societies are ethnically and religiously plural, the Fulani of Adamawa and Taraba tend to be cosmopolitan almost by default. As people who pay attention to the politics of Nigerian identities know, Adamawa and Taraba states have some of Nigeria’s most diverse ethnic groups. The states are also almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. That’s why it’s impossible to grow up in these two states and live entirely in your ethnic and religious filter bubble.
A third category are the bucolic, semi-nomadic, cattle-herding Fulani (whom Hausa people call "Fulanin daji" which literally means, "bush Fulani") who live on the outskirts of several Nigerian communities. There is no part of Nigeria where they don’t exist. They tend to learn the languages of their host communities and are often well integrated into the fabric of such communities. Although they share vast linguistic and cultural similarities with the Fulani of the northeast, they are, for the most part, disaffiliated from the politics and intrigues of the Nigerian state. They are usually neither Muslims nor Christians. Their religion is usually just the welfare of their cattle. They don’t recognise, much less have loyalty to, Nigeria’s prevailing geopolitical demarcations. In other words, they are not invariably northerners.
The fourth kind of Fulani are the transhumant, rootless, perpetually migratory Bororo Fulani pastoralists (whose endonym is Wodaabe) who have no physical or emotional attachment to any specific community, although they are mostly found in the Republic of Niger. They are citizens without borders and are also usually neither Muslims nor Christians, although many may nominally identify as Muslims. Most bloody clashes between farmers and cattle herders traditionally occur between these restlessly itinerant cattle-herding Bororo Fulani pastoralists and farmers. Even the bucolic, seminomadic cattle-herding Fulani fear the nomadic Bororo Fulani.
Kidnapping for ransom, cattle theft, and mass murders in both northern and southern Nigeria attributed to “Fulani herdsmen” tend to be perpetrated by the Bororo Fulani. But there is increasing evidence that some semi-nomadic Fulanin daji who have lost their cattle have joined the lucrative, almost risk-free “business” of kidnapping for ransom.
For instance, Punch of 24 March 2021 quoted Saleh Alhassan, identified as the spokesman of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, another Fulani cultural group, as saying that “some displaced herders in the country, who were dispossessed of their cows, end up becoming bandits carrying out several attacks including kidnapping on Nigerians”.
Nevertheless, it bears repeating that the violence associated with “bandits” or “Fulani herdsmen” is neither animated by religion nor by ethnicity. More Muslim northern Nigerians (including ethnic Fulani) have died from the sanguinary fury of “Fulani bandits” than have southern or Middle Belt Christians. As the 3 April 2021 murder of two leaders of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association by “Fulani bandits” has illustrated, not even Fulani leaders who habitually defend Fulani cattle herders are immune from their violence.
Are “bandits” Boko Haram?
In the last two years, many people have wondered if “Fulani herdsmen” or “bandits” are actually Boko Haram elements who have transmuted into a different identity, particularly in light of the frequency of the kidnapping of schoolchildren, which has the effect of discouraging the enrolment of northern Nigerian children in Western schools—the ultimate goal of Boko Haram.
Well, Boko Haram and “Fulani herdsmen” or “bandits” are obviously different people. Most Boko Haram members come from the Kanuri ethnic group. The Kanuri and the Fulani are not only completely different people, they are—or used to be— “historical enemies” or what Frederick Lugard called “hereditary rivals”. Kanuris resisted Usman Dan Fodio's 19th-century jihad because they said there was nothing about their Islam, which they had embraced since at least the 9th century before even the Fulani, that needed Dan Fodio's "reform".
The tensile stress that the Kanem-Borno Empire’s repudiation of Dan Fodio’s jihad actuated has been somewhat resolved through a ritualised joking relationship between the Kanuri and the Fulani who now call each other "slaves" in light-hearted jest.
But although Muslim northern Nigeria is emerging as an ethnogenesis, i.e., a new ethnic identity forged from a mishmash of multiple identities, Kanuri people still take pride in having a political identity that is independent of the Fulani-inflected caliphate.
Nonetheless, there is mounting evidence that Boko Haram is succeeding in enlisting the support of “Fulani herdsmen” to spread terror, weaken or extirpate Western education, and ultimately take over northern Nigeria. The Sultan of Sokoto, a scion of Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio and Muslim northern Nigeria’s most important ruler, was the first to call attention to what appears to be a merger between Boko Haram and “bandits” in the aftermath of two mass abductions of schoolchildren in Katsina and Niger states by people the news media labelled as “bandits”.
“Make no mistake, the abduction is a classic example of the philosophical foundation of Boko Haram – that western education is forbidden,” the Nigerian Guardian of 20 February 2021 quoted him as saying. “That’s why their targets are always boarding schools, especially science schools, considered atheistic in pedagogy.”
Sahara Reporters also reported on 25 March 2021 that Boko Haram now trains and arms “Fulani herdsmen”. Although no firm, foolproof evidence of Boko Haram/Fulani herdsmen alliance can be established as yet, anecdotal evidence points to it. It appears that Boko Haram’s ideologically situated violence is finding common ground with “Fulani herdsmen’s” nihilistic and mercenary violence. This doesn’t bode well for Nigeria.
Farooq A. Kperogi is a Nigerian academic, media scholar, public speaker and newspaper columnist