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’.
World Watch Monitor: 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 that for this reason they are able to do all these things without anyone stopping them. This is the problem.
Now if these helpless indigenous people want to protect their communities by arming themselves they will be accused of exactly doing that. So in the end it is the victims who suffer most. They are being put in prison, they are the ones whose areas will be cordoned off by government, but who will not be protected by that same government when the Fulani attacks.
Can you imagine in a civilised world like ours, today … the inhumanity of the acts of the Fulani herdsmen? They catch old men, pregnant women, young children. Some slaughter them like you do with animals. Others rip open the wombs of pregnant women and remove foetuses and chuck them on the ground. Can you imagine that? That level of inhumanity?
The government presence in their areas, through the police and army, immobilises them and is giving them the false hope that they are there to protect them. This, however, is not so. The truth is that the government is there to abet whatever the Fulani herdsmen want to do. So this is where the problem lies. The bigger problem is that this narrative does not come from the victims. It is concocted and propagated by those who are in a position to protect the people but are not doing it.
Can you imagine in a civilised world like ours, today … the inhumanity of the acts of the Fulani herdsmen? They catch old men, pregnant women, young children. Some slaughter them like you do with animals. Others rip open the wombs of pregnant women and remove foetuses and chuck them on the ground. Can you imagine that? That level of inhumanity? Cruelty?
This is a Nigeria I really don’t know. As a Nigerian I don’t know what is going on, but there’s one thing I do know: namely that those who come to broker peace between the Fulani herdsmen and the indigenous population, or so-called farmers, they will achieve nothing. Why?
When a typical Muslim Fulani herdsman sits with a typical indigenous person, or a Christian, to talk about establishing peace between them, there is something that they lack and that is the human value of equality. It is not there, so how can you broker peace when two people don’t have an understanding of human equality?
The second value that is missing is that of justice. Where is justice when a typical Muslim-Fulani herdsman and indigenous person, or Christian, sit down to discuss peace? Between the two of them there is no value of justice. They don’t even have the human value of freedom – namely that you are free to stay where you are, in peace. There’s no freedom.”
WWM: What is the solution?
YT: The solution is something that needs to be worked out. At the moment I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that it is impossible to broker peace in the current situation, as I explained. You can see it in the stream of tribunals after tribunals and committees after committees, with no results. Why? Because without the basic values I mentioned, you can’t create a conducive, viable environment for people to live in.”
WWM: So should it be left to Nigeria to find a solution, or does the solution have to come from the international community?
YT: Well if the government plays its part, then we will say we are on a way to having a solution. However, if the government believes that Fulani herdsmen and the indigenous people are equal human beings and that justice should govern the two peoples, and acts on that … then there’s a way of resolving the issue. Because if the government isn’t, then how do you do it? How would NGOs, external people do it? Would you force the government? But how?
WWM: But now the Nigerian army started a new operation to chase away, as they call it, the gangs that are operating in some Middle Belt states. That’s something…
YT: Well, speaking from experience with the Nigerian society, they will start something as if they are serious about it, but after a few weeks the thing sinks and nothing happens again. We have seen a lot of that. Now if there’s a rebirth of a long-lasting stabilising effort by the government, then there may be hope. But if they just come and stage-manage it, just for the world to see, then after a few weeks things will go back to usual.
This for me has become the culture: the culture of making ripples, making a noise and fooling the people into thinking that you are doing something, but actually not meaning it.
WWM: You are painting a pretty bleak picture…
YT: Well, I’m a Nigerian and I’m 70 years old. If there was a solution we would not be crying today. Right now there are communities in the world where people cannot sleep because they are afraid of what will happen to them the next moment. And many of these exist in Nigeria. So the picture is bleak. It is bleak because the government has failed the people who had put their hope in it, that it would do something.
Look at the atrocities going on in southern Kaduna and other parts of the country. Has the government been very serious about it?
WWM: You tell me…
YT: Well how do I know unless I see that something is happening? I can’t believe in propaganda – I believe in what is being done to make sure that every Nigerian is secure and protected by the state. It is not that the government does not have the capacity to stop all of this and to broker peace. It has the capacity to create and ensure peaceful co-existence between ethnic and religious groups. What, or better, who has been failing are the operators: the politicians, the soldiers, the police.
WWM: But they seem to succeed in Boko Haram areas?
YT: Yes, when you stand outside, observing, they seem to succeed, but listen to the music coming from the people who are in the midst of it. They are the ones who will tell you, not the outsiders.
Yes, the government has succeeded in dispersing Boko Haram. You would see them congregate in a place and cause havoc. But they have been dispersed, what are they doing? They cause havoc here and there. They become suicide bombers, they enter homes, killing people. But from a congregational aspect … they have been dispersed.
WWM: Coming back to the Fulani: What is happening these days in southern Kaduna and other areas? And what would you want the Christians to do – to pray, to come with guns … or what?
YT: First, let’s discuss our humanity. Humanity knows no-one who is a ‘Christian’ or a ‘Muslim’.
Human beings are created to be relational. That is the gift God gave to human beings: relationships.
Now every human being is supposed to live responsibly in a responsible society. Why? Because I am a creature and my fellow human being is also a creature, and since both of us are created, we have responsibilities to each other on the basis of creation.
Now, if you pick religion then you are in trouble. Because one religion says ‘it is better to kill that man than to leave him alive’. And ethnicity says: ‘That man is an animal, he is not a human being’.
But on the basis of creation all human beings are created equal and so I have relational responsibilities to a fellow human being, regardless.
“Where religion, culture and ethnicity have failed is where they look down on a fellow human being as not a human being.”
So creation now criticises those religious people who use religion to kill, and stops them because they are supposed to be creationally responsible to other creatures.
Where religion, culture and ethnicity have failed is where they look down on a fellow human being as not a human being.
Christians will congregate and say ‘This is what Christianity says’, and Muslims will do the same thing and say ‘This is what Islam says’.
But their religion, if it has no respect for the sanctity, the worth and dignity of a human being … then there is something wrong with that religion because it does not hold up human values.
So that is why it is safer for me not to bring religion up at first. We will begin with our common ancestry as creatures, as created beings.
You see, religion is [supposed] to better our relationships as created beings, not to worsen it. Human beings, however, have corrupted culture, ethnicity, and religion and thrown them against humanity, while they are supposed to promote it.
WWM: So what can Christians do?
YT: Number one is prayer, to pray for the situation [in northern Nigeria and the Middle Belt], for the persecution, the marginalisation and the discrimination that Christians are facing here.
Secondly: awareness. If the world is aware of what is going on, it can help. When somebody is failing in his responsibility to arrest evil and protect innocent people, and he hears how others talk about that failure, this will prick the person’s mind and heart. When news about these atrocities is broadcast around the world and people say, ‘What is wrong with those [people]. Are they animals or human beings?’, then the Nigerians will also say, ‘What is happening to us?’ So international publicity is important because it arouses the conscience of people who have no conscience.
And then there are the Christians who have suffered physically from the attacks, and their brothers who could have helped them, too. So they have physical and also spiritual needs that need to be met. This is where the international community can come in and help.