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Brave New Book Historicizes Northern Nigeria’s Ethno-religious Tensions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. More than any region in Nigeria, northern Nigeria is honeycombed with deep-rooted and seemingly unceasing...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

More than any region in Nigeria, northern Nigeria is honeycombed with deep-rooted and seemingly unceasing ethno-religious tensions that episodically snowball into fratricidal upheavals, often between so-called settlers (who are invariably Hausa-Fulani Muslims) and so-called indigenes (who are usually non-Muslim ethnic minorities). Why is a region that appears, at least to outsiders, to be the most politically and culturally cohesive in Nigeria also the victim of profound internal dissension and distrust? Why is there deep-seated suspicion and unease between the Muslim north and the Christian north?

A bold, brave, brilliant new book by Dr. Moses Ochonu, Associate Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, provides thoughtful scholarly perspectives into these questions. Through a deft deployment of extensive archival data, it offers robustly penetrating historical and sociological insights into the perpetual tensile stress that characterizes relations between northern Nigeria’s Hausa-Fulani Muslim majority and the region’s Christian, or at least non-Muslim, ethnic minorities who label themselves the “Middle Belt.”

 The book, titled Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria and published by the Indiana University Press early this year, locates much of the contemporary ethno-religious tension in northern Nigeria to the largely unexplored but crucially consequential form and content of British colonial rule. 

It points out that while the British colonized Muslim northern Nigeria indirectly through the region’s pre-existing centralized feudal traditional and administrative institutions, it colonized non-Muslim northern Nigeria even more indirectly through “native aliens,” that is, Hausa-Fulani Muslims whom British colonialists placed atop their self-created African civilizational hierarchy.  “This resulted in a subcolonial bureaucracy driven at the grass roots by thousands of Hausa chiefs, scribes, tax agents, and their own Hausa-Fulani agents, who initiated much of the colonial agenda in these Middle Belt districts” (p. 2).

Thus, the Hausa-Fulani became “subcolonials,” or proxy colonialists, who in turn appointed “lesser chiefs, aides, tax collectors, scribes, and enforcers” mostly from among their kind but sometimes from among the “natives” in order to prepare the Middle Belt for the kind of indirect colonial rule that was successful in the Muslim north. The motive force for this arrangement stemmed from the colonial construction of the people of the Middle Belt as benighted cultural inferiors who needed the civilizational tutelage of their Hausa-Fulani cultural superiors preparatory to British indirect colonial rule. This invidious social differentiation wasn’t a simple case of the divide-and-rule tactic for which (British) colonialists were infamous. On the contrary, the book argues, the policy of “proxy colonialism” was driven by the “pursuit of sameness in the crucible of preparatory proxy rule” (p. 8).

 In other words, the British didn’t create the primordial difference between the Hausa-Fulani and the people of the Middle Belt; the difference already existed prior to colonialism. The colonialists tried, instead, to erase the difference by conscripting Hausa-Fulani “subcolonials” to help them make the Middle Belt culturally and politically similar to the Muslim north in preparation for the kind of indirect rule that succeeded in politically centralized precolonial societies. But in order to erase a difference you first need to not only acknowledge the difference, but to also accentuate it. The book goes into elaborate details on how this was done. This paradox was one of the core contradictions of the colonial project in northern Nigeria whose consequences endure in the region to this day.

The book admits that its use of “Hausa-Fulani” is sometimes a broad-brush categorization that subsumes many disparate ethnic identities that are nonetheless united by Islam and the Hausa language. It says “some of the powerful ‘Hausa’ colonial officers were neither Hausa nor Fulani” and that the “the only basis for their claim of caliphate-Hausa pedigree” is their “Muslim faith and their proficient facility with the Hausa language.”

 Several of the “Hausa” proxy colonialists were Yoruba, Nupe, and Gwari Muslims, the book points out. For instance, a Yoruba Muslim from Ilorin first known as Alabi but who later changed his name to Abubakar was appointed chief of the Idoma town of Ugboju. Similarly, in Tiv land, Audu dan Afoda, a Nupe Muslim who had worked as an interpreter and agent for British colonialists, was appointed the sarkin [king of] Makurdi in 1914 and remained in that position until his death in 1947.

In several chapters, the book carefully and sensitively chronicles the tensions, conflicts, and revolts that were actuated by the presence of British-appointed Hausa-Fulani “subcolonial” overlords in such Middle Belt communities as southern Kaduna, the Plateau-Nasarawa Basin, the Benue Valley, and the Adamawa Province. For Middle Belt communities, anti-colonial struggles inevitably took on an anti-Hausa-Fulani Muslim character because Hausa-Fulani Muslims were both the symbolic and literal representations of colonialism for them. The last chapter of the book accounts for the factors that inspired the birth and maturation of Middle Belt consciousness and artfully connects this to the politics and sociology of contemporary northern Nigeria.

It is easy to be misled into thinking that this book is another anti-Muslim political screed by a resentful Middle Belt intellectual. It is not. It’s a nuanced, dispassionate, and even-handed scholarly exploration of the nature and essence of the colonial project in northern Nigeria and how this prefigures the contours of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in contemporary northern Nigeria. As the author points out, “The enduring influence of colonial administrative arrangements implicated in current conflicts can be better understood by probing the complexities of those arrangements and by explaining the afterlives of colonial struggles” (p. 2).

As a northern Nigerian Muslim from Borgu whose part of the country didn’t experience “proxy colonialism” of the kind experienced in non-Muslim northern Nigeria, the book gave me several insights into the anxieties and tensions that define Muslim-Christian relations in northern Nigeria.

This book is recommended, even compulsory, reading for anybody who cares about northern Nigeria.

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