By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Many people have asked me to weigh in on why the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders’ Association of Nigeria not only endorsed President Muhammadu Buhari for this year’s presidential election but also chose to openly antagonize and demonize PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar when, in fact, both Buhari and Abubakar are Fulani like members of the Miyetti Allah group.
Well, although on the surface Buhari and Atiku have a shared Fulani ethnic identity, they are in reality different kinds of Fulani. Being “Fulani” isn’t a homogenous, unproblematized collective identity; it is a complex, multi-layered one.
In several past articles, I have pointed out that there are at least four distinct categories of Fulani people in Nigeria. You have 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 stereotypical physical features associated with the Fulani. Buhari belongs in this group.
But not every acculturated urban Fulanin gida self-identifies as Fulani. For instance, a former editor of mine at the Weekly Trust in Kaduna by the name of Isyaku Dikko who looks phenotypically Fulani always insisted he was Hausa because, he said, Hausa is his native language and Hausa culture is the only culture he grew up in. He always pointed out that he would be out of place in a traditional Fulani society because he knows nothing about, or at least hasn’t internalized, the norms, performances, and boundaries of the group’s identity.
That makes a lot of sense. Identity mostly inheres in language, culture, memory, and emotions, not just in genetics and physical features. The term “Hausa-Fulani” emerged in the course of history to capture the hybridity of “genetically” Fulani people who are nonetheless linguistically, culturally and even part genetically Hausa. In a 1999 interview, Buhari said he loved the term “Hausa-Fulani” because it gives expression to the hybridity of his identity. His father was Fulani while his mother was half Hausa and half Kanuri, but he is culturally and linguistically Hausa.
Another category of the Fulani are the (urban), settled, non-cattle-herding Fulani who are still wedded to their primordial language and culture, particularly in such northeastern states as Adamawa and Taraba— and parts of Gombe and Bauchi. They usually have relatives who still live in the “bushes,” and resent being labeled as anything other than Fulani. Atiku Abubakar belongs in this group.
The Fulani of Adamawa and Taraba also take exception to being called “Hausa-Fulani” because Hausa is only a second or 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. Former super permanent secretary Alhaji Ahmed Joda, who was chairman of the Presidential Research and Communications Unit where I worked for two years, once told us during a staff meeting that when he left the former Gongola Province in the 1940s (after his elementary and middle school education) to attend Barewa College, he couldn’t speak a lick of Hausa.
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 tell me 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 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. Atiku’s cosmopolitanism owes debts to this background.
Then you have 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.
The fourth kind of Fulani are the transhumant, rootless, perpetually migratory Bororo Fulani pastoralists (their 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. 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.
Note that there are, of course, a few Fulani who speak their language in the northwest as there are who don’t speak it in the northeast, especially in states like Gombe and Bauchi; I was just painting with a geographic broad brush here for taxonomic purposes.
So where do Miyetti Allah members fall in these classifications? It’s hard to say with any iron-clad certainty, but the organization’s founder, Muhammadu Sa’adu, was born in Jos and lived in Kaduna, which means he was culturally Hausa. I doubt that he spoke Fulfulde. In essence, he shared the same hybrid identity as Buhari. This is also true of several outspoken members of the group.
People who are on the edge of an identity tend to be more exaggeratedly aggressive in their assertion of the identity than those who are—or see themselves as being—in the mainstream of the identity.
For instance, when there was a butcherly communal turmoil that pitted Bororo Fulani cattle herders against Yoruba farmers in the Oke-Ogun area of northern Oyo State in October 2000, Buhari led a group of “Fulani” northerners to Ibadan to meet with the late Governor Lam Adesina where he told Adesina, among other things, “your people are killing my people.” A Fulani person from the northeast is unlikely to say that. However, that is the kind of simplistic but unhelpful rhetoric that folks at Miyetti Allah cherish.
But Buhari was wrong. The Oke-Ogun farmers carefully spared their “own Fulani”; their Fulani spoke Yoruba because they had always lived in the “bushes” of that community for decades and interacted with their hosts. Buhari found that out. He found out that it was neither an ethnic war (since the “bush” Fulani in the community were spared) nor a religious one (since most people in northern Oyo are Muslims and most of the Bororo pastoralists are, in fact, not).
The Bororo would not regard Buhari as one of them since he doesn’t speak any dialect of Fulfulde and most of them don’t speak Hausa. Nor would they regard the loudmouths at Miyetti Allah, who claim to represent them, as their kin.
As it should be obvious by now, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders’ Association endorsed Buhari because most of its members are more like Buhari than they are like Atiku.
Kperogi, Associate Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University, Georgia’s fastest-growing and third-largest university. (Kennesaw is a suburb of Atlanta).