Genocide, hegemony and power in Nigeria

Obadiah Mailafia
Obadiah Mailafia

Italian Marxist political philosopher Antonio Gramsci was one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century. I admire his freshness of approach and his critical spirit in approaching issues of domination and power in world politics. Gramsci invented the notion of “hegemonia” (hegemony) to explain the structure and anatomy of domination in political society. He identified varying forms of domination economy, culture and politics. According to him, dominant elites manipulate capital, political power, ideas, information and knowledge to consolidate their stranglehold on society. Hegemony can be so effective that the people dominated begin to accept their fate as a part of the natural order and the best of all possible worlds. I find this concept of hegemony so relevant with what is going on in relation to the genocide being perpetrated by the Fulani militias in the Middle Belt of our country today.

Historians the world over agree that the original home of the Fulani people is Futa Jallon (also known in the French as Fouta Djallon) in the Upper Guinea highlands of the West African Republic of Guinea. Also known as Fula, Fulbe or Pullo, the Fulani are thought to have emigrated from North Africa and the Middle East in ancient times, settling in the Futa Jallon Mountains and intermarrying with the local population and creating a unique ethnic identity based on cultural and biological miscegenation.

Futa Jallon is also the source of the great River Niger that undulates a vast region of our beloved West Africa; traversing over 4,000 km. It is a region of great beauty, with a near-temperate climate. It has been described by a European visitor as “the Switzerland of Africa”. The Malian writer and ethnologist Amadou Hampaté Ba famously described Futa Jallon as “the Tibet of West Africa”, on account of its surfeit of Muslim clerics, Sufi mystics, itinerant students and preachers.
The second traditional home of the Fulani is Futa Toro, by the banks of the Senegal River in the current nation of Senegal.
Over the centuries the Fulani converted to Islam and some of them became zealous Muslim clerics and itinerant proselytisers. Through war and conquest they formed several kingdoms, among them Tukolor, Massina, the Caliphate of Usman Dan Fodio and Fombina in the early nineteenth century.

Today, the Fulani number about 20 million worldwide. They are spread all over West and central Africa, particularly Guinea, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Ghana, Niger, Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and The Gambia. Their population is between 7 and 8 million in their original homeland in Guinea.

The Fulani are the world’s largest single pastoral ethnic community, ahead of the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania and the Karamajong of Uganda. Out of their population of 20 million, a third are pastoralists while the rest are settled, sedentary communities consisting of farmers, traders, artisanal craftsmen and Muslim clerics.

The Fulani who once enjoyed great political power as founders of empires are today largely powerless. Despite the fact that they constitute the single largest ethnic majority in their original homeland of Guinea, they have never enjoyed political power in that country. The ethnic composition of Guinea, according to recent estimates, is as follows: Fula (41%); Mandinka (33%); Susu (12%); Kissi (5%); Kpelle (5%); and others (4%).

Ever since independence from the French, Sekou Toure, an ethnic Mandinka, ruled the country with an iron hand. He was particularly hard on the Fula, whom he accused of plotting with the French to undermine his government. One of the prominent casualties was Diallo Telli, a Fula. He was the pioneer Secretary-General of the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) before becoming Minister of Justice under Sekou Toure. In March 1977 Toure accused him of being the arrowhead of a Fula complot to overthrow the government. He was thrown into the notorious Camp Boiro prison where he died a gruesome death.

Subsequent rulers of the country, from Louis Lansana Beavogui, Lansana Conté, Moussa Dadis Camara and the incumbent Alpha Condé, have all been non-Fula. It would seem that all the other ethnic groups have ganged up to ensure that a Fula will never rule over them. One of the closest who came to grabbing power was the brilliant Fula economist and banker Cellou Dalein Diallo. He had been prime minister under the late Lansana Conté where he acquitted himself as an effective administrator. He has become a rallying point of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG).

But it would seem that the rest of the ethnic groups are already determined that they would never be ruled by the Fula, who remain the majority as well as being the most educated and among the most moneyed classes. The Mandinka, the Susu and others believe the Fula are a highly clannish and racist group and that once they seize power, they would turn the rest of them into slaves in their own ancestral homeland.

Perhaps this explains why the Fulani have turned their attention to Nigeria. They remember the great success of the Fulani Jihad led by Usman Dan Fodio and his son Mohammed Bello. They believe that if they cannot establish hegemonic power in their own ancestral homeland then they have a right to turn to Nigeria, a land they believe was given to them by God Almighty Himself. They have been encouraged by the fact that the population of Fulanis in Nigeria is even threatening to overtake that of their original home in Guinea. They are also inspired by the fact that three Nigerian leaders have been of the Fulani ethnic extraction, namely, Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari, Murtala Ramat Mohammed (through his mother), Umaru Yar’Adua and the current incumbent of our High Magistracy Muhammadu Buhari.

Under the Nigerian constitution, the Government of Nigeria has a duty to cater for all our citizens. Unfortunately, the Fulani from throughout West Africa and beyond believe Nigeria belongs to them by right. They are under this illusion that they can come from across the border with their cattle and the next day, have a right to demand land for settlement. They also forget that under the ECOWAS Protocol on the movement of peoples, visitors from our region can live only for 3 months as visitors. If they plan to live beyond the statutory 3 months they have to apply to regularise their stay. Unfortunately, recent Fulani emigrants recognise no such regulations. They can come today and tomorrow they are demanding all the rights and privileges appertaining to all bona fide citizens. Not only that, they are laying legal claims to ancestral lands belonging to the peoples of Benue, Taraba, Plateau and the rest of the Middle Belt.

Before the arrival of the British, the Fulani spearheaded raids throughout the Middle Belt in a bid to capture slaves and for material booty, land and conquest. The peoples of the Middle Belt heroically resisted them. Usman Dan Fodio was himself wounded by the Tivs in Benue, of which he later died in April 1817. Perhaps it was on account of this that the Fulani established a relationship of “abokanin wasa” (playmates) with the Tivs. For the better part of a century, the Tivs regarded the Fulanis as their friends and playmates. This relationship has foundered on the full realisation of their renewed ambitions for conquest, subjugation, genocide and dispossession.

During the era of British colonial rule, the Caliphate was strengthened to bolster the moral economy of British imperial power. The Emirs were strengthened to lord it over the peoples of the Middle Belt, so long as they were satisfying the expectations of the colonial masters. Thus it came about that Emirs were created in areas that were 99% Christian, including such areas as Jema’a, Lafia, Keffi, Jere and Wase. They were even touting with the idea of creating emirates in Makurdi and Jos, were it not for the grace of God! Where they could not create new emirates the people were placed under the tutelage of Caliphal feudal overlords. A good example is the Tiv people, who for many years in the fifties and sixties were placed under the tutelage of the Emir of Muri.

In Nigeria the original Habe Hausa peoples have become integrated into a new mongrel race known as “Hausa-Fulani”. It is a constructed identity of very recent times. Most Fulani in today’s Nigeria are largely a settled urban community. Today, their foot soldiers are their pastoralist herdsmen that they have armed with sophisticated weapons to wreck bloodshed and pillage throughout the vast expanses of our ancestral savannah homeland in the Middle Belt. The Fulbe language is rarely spoken by most Fulanis in Nigeria. Contemporary Fulbe speakers are to be found mainly in Gombe, Adamawa, Katsina and Kano. Although all the Emirs are Fulanis, you are most unlikely to hear their language spoken in their palaces. Hausa has become their lingua franca.

By lumping themselves as Hausa-Fulani, the Fulanis have successfully hidden their oppressive stranglehold on Northern Nigeria. The truth is that the Hausa people make up the bulk of the Talakawa. No Hausa person could ever aspire to be Emir. The Fulani have successfully exploited the Caliphate to consolidate their stranglehold over the North and over the rest of Nigeria which they believe to be their patrimony by right.

What the peoples of the Middle Belt today face is a tragedy that can best be described as genocide. Fulani militias in their thousands have been rampaging across the primeval savannah, killing, pillaging and burning down entire villages. Not only do they maim and kill; they destroy farmsteads and repopulate them with their own people.

I myself do not believe in preaching hatred. We must preach the gospel of love. We would never advocate for people to go about hunting Fulanis and doing reprisal killings. But nobody should deny the leaders of the victim communities the right to voice their legitimate concerns. When General T. Y. Danjuma raised alarm about it, he was told to “use his influence wisely”. General Danjuma urged his people to “defend themselves”, which is not only in line with the constitution of Nigeria; it is in conformity with the sacred precepts of the Law of Nations, Natural Justice and the dictates of Just Law Theory. The customs and international laws of war since time immemorial demand that people who face a direct threat to their own existential survival have a duty and right to engage in legitimate self-defence. It is not only a principle derived from law, it derives from morality and international ethics.

Obadiah Mailafia