Obscured by Boko Haram’s headlines, violence has also raged further south, in Nigeria’s Middle Belt: a less reported, years-long campaign which experts now believe has been responsible for more deaths than Boko Haram. Militants among the ethnic Fulani, a predominantly Muslim and nomadic population of cattle herders, are suspected of targeting the indigenous (mainly Christian) population, mostly farmers. World Watch Monitor spoke to Professor Yusufu Turaki, Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Church and Society at Jos ECWA Theological Seminary in Nigeria, about this under-reported conflict and ‘revivalist Islamism’.
WWM: So who are the Fulani?
Yusufu Turaki: The ethnic Fulani group originally came from the Senegal and Gambia areas of West Africa. They are pastoralists, or cattle rearers, and they started to move from the Senegambia area eastwards along the northern Sahel region of West Africa … and so they move from the Senegal/Gambia area across Mali, Niger and northern parts of Nigeria into Chad and the Central African Republic and northern parts of Cameroon. The majority settled in what we now call northern Nigeria. Some of the Fulani are Muslims, but not all of them.
In the early 19th century those who had settled in northern Nigeria listened to the Islamic teachings of Shaihu Usman dan Fodio, his brother Abdullahi dan Fodio and his son Muhammed Bello. These Islamic scholars settled in what was then called Sokoto, in the north-western region of Nigeria.
In 1804 Usman dan Fodio staged a successful Islamic jihad against the northern Hausa rulers.
Now Islam had first arrived in the north-eastern part of Nigeria in the 10th or 11th century, in Kanuri, what was then called the Kanem-Bornu Empire. It’s the same area where Boko Haram has been active.
“Today in northern Nigeria there is a vibrant and active revivalist Islamism.”
A little later, in the 14th century, Islam then was introduced in northern Nigeria, in Hausa land. The Hausa people embraced Islam but did not practise pure Islam. They mixed it with Pagan practices.
So Usman dan Fodio moved into the area to purify Islam. He staged a successful jihad and overthrew Hausa rule and became the new ruler in Hausa land.
Some historians and writers call this the ‘Fulani overthrowing the Hausa rulers’, where they took over the entire northern part of Hausa-land, imposing themselves on the conquered Hausa people.
And so the Fulani established their Sokoto Empire in the north-western part of northern Nigeria. However, before the arrival of Islam in northern Nigeria, Africans had their own traditional religion that they were practising. The Hausa traders who travelled long distances (the ‘Fatake’) moved from Hausa land into the Middle Belt areas, where non-Muslim indigenous groups were living, and settled among them. Some Fulanis joined them in that as well.
When Usman dan Fodio successfully staged a jihad in northern Nigeria, the Fulani and Hausa traders who had settled in the Middle Belt and other parts of the region heard his call and some left for Sokoto to join him. Upon return, they brought the jihad flags with them and started a jihad among the neighbouring ethnic groups in the Middle Belt.
It changed the relationship, previously characterised by peaceful trading, between the indigenous non-Muslim population and the Fulani-Hausa Muslims. From now on the Muslims saw the non-Muslim areas as fertile ground for raids and slave trading.
This became the central theme of the wars that followed. The Muslims from northern Nigeria moved down into the non-Muslim areas, where they waged wars against them, including slave raiding and trading, and this went on until the arrival of the British colonial masters in 1900.
After Colonel Frederick Lugard had run the Royal Niger Company for four years (it was established in 1896) to establish trade between the colonies along the Niger River, the British declared a protectorate over northern Nigeria on 1st January 1900.
It then took Lugard and his soldiers three years to conquer the Muslim ethnic groups, including the Sokoto Caliphate and the Sultanate of Kanem-Bornu, and to establish the rule of the British Empire here.
With the arrival of the British in northern Nigeria, Christian missionaries from Great Britain and North America followed. The British advised them to not enter the Muslim areas but instead stay in the non-Muslim areas, as, unlike the Muslim areas that had ‘Islamic civilisation’, they were in need of civilisation.
This initially was the policy of the colonial government towards the two different broad ethnic groups: the Muslim and non-Muslim people. It followed a promise that Lord Lugard made to the Muslim rulers right at the beginning of his term as Governor over what later became Nigeria: that he would not interfere with their religion. It formed part of the doctrine of religious-non-interference that the British established right at the beginning.
So to return to what is happening today with the Fulani herdsmen.
After the Fulani moved down to the Middle Belt as peaceful traders, and then as jihadists waging war against the people, the British came and established Pax Britannica – ‘British peace’.
Although the British put a stop to Islamisation, to slave raiding and trading and slavery, after they left Nigeria in 1960, the Fulani-Hausa Muslim rulers still had this idea that Usman dan Fodio had when he started conquering the non-Muslim areas – to Islamise them.
And while the British did put a stop to slavery and other things, they created hostility between the Muslim and the non-Muslim groups by taking the Hausa-Fulani Muslim rulers and placing them over the indigenous non-Muslim population, authorising them to collect the heavy taxes that the British had imposed. This was the way in which the British governed the whole of the protectorate.
Today, with the British gone and upheaval all over the world, especially with the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East, the Islamic ‘revival’ against the West, especially Christianity and Western culture, has mobilised and motivated Muslims in West Africa, where they have started to think of reviving Islam and its original status.
So today in northern Nigeria there is a vibrant and active revivalist Islamism. This militant form of Islam wants to move into the areas where it never was. Until the British arrived and imposed their rule over the entire part of northern Nigeria, that is (with the help of the Muslim Fulani-Hausa rulers) and Muslims were able to spread out by moving into other parts of the country as well. And following on the departure of the British, the rulers of most parts of northern Nigeria are Muslims who want to rule over the indigenous people.
So who then are the ‘Fulani’? They are radicalised Muslims. They have seen what is taking place in the Middle East and the results of that, including the fall of Libya, with weapons now available everywhere in North Africa. Terrorist groups are active in North Africa and the Middle East and they move into northern parts of Nigeria and radicalise certain groups of Muslims.
One of the groups that has been radicalised by a kind of ‘revivalist Islamism’ in northern Nigeria is Boko Haram. This group is operating exactly in the historical geographical area of the Kanem-Bornu Empire and so there is a historical correlation between the two.
A similar kind of correlation exists between the Fulani herdsmen and the Sokoto Empire. The Sokoto Empire was raiding the Middle Belt area where the Fulani herdsmen today are doing exactly the same. So if someone says that there is a fight between Fulani herdsmen and indigenous farmers… that is not correct. The narrative is wrong and rooted in the revivalist atmosphere of Islam and the rise of militant Islam worldwide.
“What has happened is that the Fulani have armed themselves with sophisticated weapons and have started to invade indigenous areas that do not belong to them historically, destroying villages and killing people.”
And when somebody talks about foreigners [among them], they may be right because the Fulani are everywhere in West Africa. They live in Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Central Africa, and so some of the Fulani who are active in the Middle Belt are Nigerians but others aren’t. They are, however, all herdsmen, moving from one community to another, tending their sheep or cattle.
What has happened in the last six or seven years is that, while they used to live in peace with their hosts, the indigenous ethnic groups, the Fulani have armed themselves and with sophisticated weapons. They have started to invade indigenous areas that do not belong to them historically, attacking and destroying villages, killing and chasing people off their ancestral lands and settling there themselves. And they do so with impunity. There is no government authority that has stopped them going around killing people. Nobody has arrested them.
So what is the issue? Here you have indigenous people who have surrendered the protection and security of their communities to the government, which has the constitutional right to protect and secure their wellbeing. But what the government has failed to do is to protect them against Fulani harassment, attacks, invasion and killings. So the law-abiding citizens of Nigeria look up to their government to protect them, to secure them, but unfortunately the government has failed.
That is why some Nigerians are beginning to create a new narrative. A narrative that says that the Fulani herdsmen are well-connected within government and